Up on a high plateau in the mountains of Borneo, lies the village of Barrio where the Kelabit and Penan people have co-existed for centuries. It is here, in the Indo-Malay wilderness, that the Swiss environmental activist, Bruno Manser, lived from 1984 to 1990 settling into the indigenous communities while campaigning against deforestation. On his last trip to Borneo, he mysteriously disappeared and was declared dead five years later in the year 2005. And to this day, his last remaining trace is a letter he wrote to his partner, posted from a village in eastern Malaysia shortly before he disappeared, nearly 20 years ago.
Not far from there, in an area called Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, the documentary photographer Isabelle Ricq spent several years documenting the destruction of forests and gargantuan palm-oil plantations that took their place. It was there that she first heard about Bruno Manser. Then, nearly ten years ago now, she met Christian Tochtermann in Paris, who specialised in architectural photography, and together they realised a mutual interest in Bruno and embarked on a research project in tribute to him. Culminating in seven years of work, journeying back and forth from Borneo on a number of occasions, Isabelle and Christian have created a photographic letter addressed to the activist who disappeared in the mountainous region.
“Our curiosity for the evolution of Borneo as well as Bruno Manser’s personal history led us to make the first trip together in 2011,” explains Isabelle. “The original idea was to make a short press subject, but we were caught up in the different worlds in which this project took us,” Christian tells us. And as a result, Letter to Bruno Manser tracks the activist’s personal history in the form of a book recently published by Sturm & Drang. As the project evolved, the two photographers’ work moulded into one. Their practice converged together and “in the end,” says Isabelle, “it was impossible for readers to say who took which picture – sometimes we ourselves have trouble remembering.”
Not only does the series commemorate the late Bruno and his work, it also aims to raise awareness around the issues facing Borneo and its inhabitants. “The opposite of the caricature of the ‘white saviour’,” says Christian, Bruno found solace in the Penan people in an attempt to forget the destruction of modernity. And, as Bruno became embroiled in legal battles surrounding the diminishing forests, the publication documents the change in the Penan people; a now only semi-nomadic community. While their natural resources continue to be cut down in significant amounts, the Penan’s lives have also upturned in the way that they have been forced to use money and “play to the modern way of life” that also exploits Borneo’s lush landscape.
“The forest has been degraded, access to game and medicinal plants are no longer abundant,” say the photographers. “Today, the Penan are wearing English football jerseys, rubber shoes and are watching for solar energy to recharge their smartphones in the heart of the forest. Their habitat no longer allows them to live as they did before, which was already a harsh way of life. But also some of the younger generations prefer this modern way of life, though they never experienced the abundance of the forest. They were born when their rightful territory was already being cut down.”
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